In 2011, Nicolas China attended a friend’s wedding in Chicago and came across a product that would change his life: a photo booth.

China (pronounced “Kina”) had seen many photo booths, but the construction project manager had never seen such an open-air booth.

“It wasn’t a booth. It was more like a kiosk,” says China, as it watched guests take hundreds of photos within four hours. “People were just crazy about it.”

After studying photography in college, China thought the quality of the images could be better, but he was still mesmerized by how this bohemian photo booth stole the show at the wedding. Upon returning to Baltimore, he went online and looked for photo booth stores in his hometown. When he couldn’t find any results, he saw an opportunity.

Within two weeks, China had enlisted the help of his brother-in-law, who brought another friend over to pool $ 2,500 and use a few DSLR cameras and Mac minicomputers to build a prototype photo booth. They tested their product at a birthday party that charged by the hour, and in January 2012 the trio officially launched the photo booth company Pixilated. They started renting out their machine at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other events.

Pixilated started out as a sideline, but as word of mouth spread the founders built a second photo booth, then four, and then four more. They started booking corporate events, and by August 2012, China had quit its job to focus entirely on Pixilated. Co-founder Patrick Rife did the same about eight months later. (The duo bought China’s brother-in-law in 2015.)

Today Pixilated rents its machines in three to five hour packages for events in Maryland, Washington, DC, Northern Virginia and Pennsylvania. The company has six full-time employees and between 20 and 25 event employees.

Last year, Pixilated raised a $ 500,000 starting round from Mavin Ventures, a Baltimore-based growth equity firm. With the funds, the company built PixiCloud, a proprietary cloud-based software that it licenses to other companies. With the software Pixilated enables customers to access the pictures of the photo booth and other user data. The company recently raised an additional $ 60,000 through a crowdfunding campaign for stocks, and China says it may raise more money in 2019.

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Beyond selfie machines

Invented in the early 1900s, photo booths have become a staple of gatherings, from weddings and office parties to concerts and sporting events. There are more than 5.4 million Instagram posts today with the hashtag #photobooth, up from four million in March 2017. The broader photography industry, which includes both companies and individuals who provide photography or video services, is expected to have sales of US $ 11.3 billion will be achieved in 2023 from US $ 10.6 billion in 2018, according to data from market research company IBISWorld.

As the photo booth industry evolved, Pixilated has evolved too. The company recently launched the PixiTAB, a portable photo booth that customers can rent from $ 199 a day. You choose a theme that includes various photo overlays and filters, set it up at the event, and send it back when you’re done. All photos are available online.

Pixilated’s photo booths aren’t just selfie machines. They also provide a marketing service to customers as many of the people who pose for photos enter their email address or social media handles to get digital copies of their pictures. Pixilated customers can also place their logos on top of the digital images, essentially turning them into free advertisements when they are posted on social media.

“People think photo booths are what photo booths were five years ago,” says China. “You don’t notice [that] It’s not just a photo booth. It is a comprehensive marketing tool. ”

With Pixilated’s software, companies can track which events their customers are attending and better personalize their marketing campaigns. For example, if someone uses a Pixilated photo booth at a music venue during a concert, the venue can tailor their email marketing strategy to that person’s musical preferences.

For the past 12 months, Pixilated has had recurring accounts with Lyft, the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, Heineken, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. According to China, corporate customers now make up around 80 percent of the customer base. This year, Pixilated also did one-time collaborations with Google, Netflix, MLB’s Washington Nationals, Tito’s Vodka, and CNN.

China declined to share the sales figures, but said Pixilated was profitable prior to Mavin Ventures’ investment. In the past year, the company reinvested all profits in software development. China expects the company to be profitable again in 2018.

Though Pixilated hit the market with a single, humble photo booth, China says its business has grown up.

“I now like to see ourselves as a technology company.”

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